Tag Archives: Secularism

We White Atheists Need to Start Giving A Damn About Racial Justice

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

White atheists, it’s past time we get real.

 

And with this first sentence I’m already foreseeing the push-back. For those who have already written me off for playing in “identity politics”, or who think I’m just a self-loathing man trying to spread white guilt, I suppose it may be a lost cause to try and reach you. For the rest of you still reading and who aren’t yet on board, allow me a chance to appeal to your morals and ideals in our mutual quest to make a better world.

 

Yes, atheism doesn’t lead to any moral conclusions; anything without deities is technically compatible with an atheist’s worldview.

 

Yes, merely being white also doesn’t require you to behave in a moral way, and being white doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. Furthermore, your race or any privilege that comes along with it shouldn’t be sources of guilt.

 

I’m neither appealing to your atheism nor your whiteness, I’m appealing to your morals and sense of duty to your fellow humans. I am doing so within the context of secular and humanist activism, and where society places us based on these identities. I’m recognizing our differences and encouraging your use of privilege. I am appealing to your morality within the context of how atheist activism is currently structured. And right now, we have a lot to work on.

 

By now, you’ve already heard much of the news of the Charlottesville march filled with neo-nazi and KKK marchers. Were you aware that an expert in the alt-right describes this population as more secular than the general population? This includes Neo-Nazi and famous punch recipient Richard Spencer, who is a self-described atheist.

 

The more prominent and famous figures haven’t exactly done much to disavow or even separate their activity from this movement. Their behavior can appear ostensibly benign, such as Sam Harris’ platforming of “race realist” Charles Murray, which ultimately ends up endorsing prejudice under the guise of scientific inquiry. This promotion of white supremacy   blatant revisionism and whitewashing, like when Dave Rubin promotes a woman seeking a “final solution” for Muslims and elevates far-right xenophobic voices such as Tommy Robinson and Lauren Southern, throwing softball questions at them with only the smallest hint of pushback possible.

 

By contrast, what is happening in our own communities to combat alt-right behavior, or to push back against scare tactics? There are a good handful of secular organizations that have explicitly condemned the march (American Atheists, American Humanist Association, Freedom From Religion Foundation, and more), which is good. Are we doing more than trying to distance ourselves from the problem?

 

Black atheism certainly has a presence in the movement. Black Nonbelievers has been around for around six years, and has other affiliated groups specifically to build communities and address concerns specific to the experiences of black atheists. In 2016, the American Humanist Association developed alliances based on doing more social justice based activism, including the Black Humanist Alliance. However, the AHA received plenty of pushback for having the audacity to bring humanist efforts to these specific focuses. When racial justice activists spoke at the recent American Humanist Association conference, they received walkouts on their talks and pushback that other white presenters didn’t receive, as speaker Trav Mamone documents. Speakers like Alix Jules and Mandisa Thomas have both had a history of being treated differently than other speakers at atheist conventions, simply due to being atheists of color.

 

But somewhat equally importantly, whenever issues such as police brutality and racism are brought up within atheist circles we are met with knee-jerk pushback. We are met with cries of “identity politics” and pandering to the “regressive left”. We get Pepes in our Twitter mentions, coming from the same alt-right news sources and communities that fuel the aforementioned white supremacist marchers. Meanwhile, the ostensibly “non-racist” liberal atheists who profess to hold progressive values do little to combat blatant bigotry, and are likely to dismiss any problems simply because being an atheist has nothing to do with race (as if the entirety of our values and behavior must stem merely from our nonbelief).

 

We atheists often pride ourselves on being free of religious dogma that reinforces hatred and bigotry to our fellow humans. We often claim the moral high ground on issues such as gender and sexuality (often rightfully so), since we no longer have the chains of gender roles prescribed to us arbitrarily. But how can we as humanists claim moral superiority on race issues if we not only don’t take any action to combat racism, but we are actively tolerant of those who spread harmful race-based beliefs?

 

The day after the Charlottesville White Supremacist march, I went to Denver and attended a resistance-focused march in solidarity with Charlottesville, where thousands of other people showed up to send a strong message against White Supremacy. Speaking at the march were at least three religious leaders, all encouraging their fellow marchers to take action in their communities. I don’t share their supernatural belief and felt excluded to some extent by the prayer given that day, but at the same time I recognized their capacity for mobilizing their faith communities towards positive action.

 

My local Boulder and Denver areas have little excuse, as they both have secular organizations that meet regularly. It’s possible that some members of these organizations attended, but if so they weren’t as visible as the multiple churches that attended with large signs. Furthermore, neither group made any public show of support on social media.

 

If we white atheists supposedly care about combating racism and want to fight for justice, what’s the point if we aren’t showing up? I understand that our time and energy is limited and many of us want to focus on specific causes to make our efforts as individuals more effective. However, you would think that there would be some secular representation in issues of justice. This is barely the case, especially from white secularists, and as it currently stands humanists of color tend to be rebuffed whenever they want to create change from an evidence-based humanist perspective. What ends up happening is that many religious folks show up, and the atheists don’t.

 

To be clear, religious culture is largely responsible for racism and xenophobia in the world. We cannot pretend that Christianity has clean hands in the issue, and it’s certainly one of the largest factors in far-right terror. After all, religious symbolism and scripture ties deeply into Nazi and KKK ideology. But at the very least, we can say there are religious communities that are actively working to reverse that behavior (particularly in black churches).

 

We could sit in the theoretical abstract and recognize that being an atheist doesn’t directly tie to caring about racial justice, but why does this excuse not matter when there are atheist organizations helping the homeless, doing community service, helping disaster recovery, and performing international service? None of these tie to being an atheist either, yet all of these are active areas of humanism. Why is the race an issue that is so hard for us atheists to overcome? It should be obvious.

 

Finally, it’s worth saying that if we try to create a “big tent” inviting anyone in merely by being atheist, we are actively breeding the alt-right culture that is already fairly nonreligious. Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance tells us that by being tolerant of any and all persons involved in our communities, then that gives license to accept anyone’s intolerant behavior within the community.

 

It is no longer good enough for white atheists to be “not racist” (to whatever degree we can be non-racist). By making space for racism and bigotry in atheist and humanist circles, we are actively breeding the culture that was alive in Charlottesville and threatens to spread across the world. We are complicit in incubating the same nihilistic anti-humanistic attitudes that we see on 4Chan and r/atheism, ones that lead to hatred and intolerance. If we white atheists truly care about diversity and humanism, we can no longer be content with simple non-bigotry, we have to take steps to combat it. It may be the case that we can’t prevent these attitudes from spreading in other areas, but we should feel morally obligated to do what we can in areas we do have control over.

 

In the words of Angela Davis, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist – we must be antiracist.” Let’s apply that to our own communities, and take the log out of our own eye.

 

The fact that many of us speaking about this now only after Charlottesville speaks to our privilege and complacency with the world as it currently exists, and I include myself in that criticism. Racial justice activists and atheists of color have been speaking about this for years. If you read many of their works or listen to their talks, there is little surprise that Charlottesville was little more than a logical conclusion of our current societal structure at work. Let’s correct that mistake and actively listen. If we are truly critical thinkers and skeptics, we should undergo this collective endeavor towards truth and justice by hearing voices from all perspectives and life experiences. While the truth is independent of who says it, we will get the fuller picture from those who have those life experiences rather than those who can merely describe it.

 

For starters, I recommend this year’s “When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race” by Anthony Pinn, which paints a thorough picture why humanists need to care about racial justice. Continue to listen to humanists of color. I recommend Sincere Kirabo and Ashton P. Woods, as well as Alix Jules. If you like podcasts, listen to Angry Black Rant, with my friend Ishmael Brown.

 

In addition to that, start taking action. Even if you take little steps, it’s an improvement towards positive change. Call out racism in your family and communities (including your atheist and freethought groups). If you have a platform, elevate voices of color. Look for black businesses to support. Call and write your congresspeople in your local community regarding laws and policies that target people of color. Follow racial justice organizations for events you can volunteer and contribute to. SURJ is a fantastic organization where we white folks can become educated and learn where to take steps towards progress.

 

Hopefully we white atheists can learn these lessons and turn them into positive change. Let’s get over the fact that atheism doesn’t dictate what actions we should take. Atheism in itself doesn’t dictate that we create nonreligious communities and fight for separation of church and state, yet we do it anyway. We already take action beyond just being “merely atheist”. Let’s take action to prevent the spread of white supremacy.

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Is Atheism Activism Still Worth our Efforts?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Unless you’re not an active participant in the Atheist Patheosphere, you may have noticed a large back and forth on the merits of anti-theism the past month. I have no interest in contributing to the conversation, as I have little more useful things to say beyond what other atheists have said about the issue, and I am late to the party at this point. However, one of the opinions I thought I’d reflect on is that of my dear friend Callie Wright, who discussed her opinions in her blog post and on the 100th episode of her podcast.

I highlight her because she brings up concerns that I’ve wrestled with a long time. One of the biggest reasons she refrains from calling herself an anti-theist is that even though she hates religion with a passion enough to dedicate her podcast and blog to fighting it, losing one’s religion is often not enough to make the world a better place. I’m well aware of the more toxic atheist communities, and I loathe most of what YouTube atheism appears to offer. The white nationalist movement (commoly called If that’s not compelling enough to most readers, the modern nazi Richard Spencer, famous for getting punched on inauguration day and being turned into a meme and spurring many philosophical discussions on the ethics of nazi punching, has identified as an atheist. Apparently, the detachment from religion is not enough to prevent someone from ethnic cleansing.

Of course, you can find plenty of milder examples of terrible humans who also happen to not believe in gods, and we should not be surprised. As is often acknowledged among activists, being an atheist doesn’t make someone a skeptic, nor does it make them a humanist or a nice person. The only way to be a bad atheist is to start believing in a god again. I certainly know a lot of atheists who I loathe (and I could name a couple of atheists who feel similarly about me). Furthermore, I have some very good friends who are theists, including many of my own family who care about causes I would characterize as humanistic. This leads to me asking the question why we should care at all about atheist activism in the first place. After a lot of thought and some soul-searching (for lack of a better term), the reason I continue to be active in movement atheism comes down largely to a few things.

1. Secularism is demonstrably a good societal foundation

I shouldn’t have to defend this point on this blog, but I’ll spend a paragraph for the sake of it anyway. You cannot expect much good to come of a society that bases its laws on things that aren’t demonstrable. Furthermore, even if you assume that a god exists, stating that we should enact a law based on the god’s holy book is basically stating that we should create a law “because my friend said so”. No matter how you slice it, creating a society or a moral system based on a religious authority is inherently flawed. We should build our values and systems based on evidence. Even if our evidence and methodologies were able to evaluate that a god exists and that this god holds a reliable and moral ethical framework, wouldn’t we be better off using our evidence and methodologies to evaluate further moral questions rather than relying on an authority?

Keeping this in mind, even if there are atheists of terrible moral character, we would be far better off with institutionalized secularism. I can’t pretend that bullying and harassment would go away tomorrow if there were no religious people. However, we would lose out on institutionalized privileging of theistic positions. Think of all the arguments against LGBTQ equality that politicians regularly make, and notice that they only make sense within a theistic framework. Even when there aren’t blatant mentions of a god or a holy book, dogwhistle phrases about the “family” or “values” specifically bring up these appeals to those within a religious mindset. I applaud groups like the Freedom of Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association for fighting religion’s influence on an institutional level. While many will value religious beliefs over other attitudes, we are better off fighting tooth and claw such that our laws will not privilege Christian belief over other worldviews.

Not only are many laws founded on poor epistemology and irrational beliefs, but many of our internal attitudes have the same foundation. There is no rational reason for gender essentialism, as male and female brains are largely the same. However, Christian culture overvalues the male of the household and demands that women become submissive. This behavior spills over into other toxic attitudes on gender and sexuality, leading to the bullying and harassment of gay and transgender individuals.

Other toxic attitudes include ideas such as the prosperity gospel, which is the idea that individual success and prosperity is directly linked to one’s devotion to the Christian god. On an individual level this is a horrifying idea, as it implies that everyone who is in financial hard times deserves the problems they are currently facing. If we extrapolate this, then we as a society internalize the idea that anyone who is suffering necessarily deserves it. Under this mindset, statistically destitute populations and demographics are poor because they deserve to be poor, which may demotivate us from taking action to giving them a hand up. This mindset is also mildly linked to the attitude that hardships are specifically a punishment from the divine. Keep this in mind when the Steven Andersons or the Westboro Baptist Churches of the world state that the latest natural disaster is a sign from the Lord against abortion or the acceptance of LGBTQ rights. While I’m not going to ignore the fact that there are atheists who have all sorts of terrible sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or classist attitudes, eliminating religion would be one more barrier to escaping these ideas.

2.Believing in true things is better than believing in false things

This ties into my earlier point, but focuses much more on an individual level of behavior and belief. We can see what happens when beliefs founded on superstition and religion enter the public sphere. We can’t ignore, though, that this can have an effect on our everyday decisions.

I’m genuinely happy to come across Christians and other theists in my everyday life who value progressive causes. When I was a Christian I was one of them. I was supportive of gay rights before it was cool (as I put on some hipster shades) and established my romantic relationships such that the women that I dated in high school were my equals. The problem was that none of that was founded in the bible. One of the reasons that I questioned my religious beliefs was the crowd of other Christians who cited the same holy book that I used. When I unburied my head from the sand and actually looked into what I found in the book, I did not find peace and love wished upon my gay friends and I did not find egalitarian attitudes between the husband and wife. What I found was clearly the opposite.

Ultimately, when I held strong humanistic beliefs as a Christian, they were built on shaky foundations. When your epistemology is based on unfounded assumptions and starting points, it leads to poor conclusions. I’m happy to come across people of a religious or spiritual nature who are supportive of humanistic causes, but I have to recognize that those results aren’t a function of good reasoning, and that poor reasoning can lead to poor outcomes in other areas.

In Boulder, where I currently reside, it is difficult to find someone who holds outwardly bigoted attitudes against any given identity. However, new age and “spiritual” attitudes are common, and with that come thoroughly unskeptical positions on modern medicine and science. It’s not uncommon for me to come across a crystal healing booth at a festival in town, or a holistic medicine outlet while strolling downtown. There are plenty of young adults who are anti-vaccine, or think that GMOs give people cancer. Discussions on homeopathy and vaccines seem like boilerplate skeptic discussions, but attitudes on science drastically affect our lives and others. People get scammed and lose money because they think sugar pills heal their cancer. Gullible parents allow their babies to die because they think the vaccines will give their child autism. I can’t pretend that religious or spiritual people of any political bent are exempt from reaching harmful positions based on their preconceived notions.

Embracing reality after losing religion can have a drastically positive effect on our lives. In my case, I was able to recognize many sex-negative attitudes that have been pounded into me since my adolescence, and as a result of purging these attitudes I have been able to celebrate my body and enhance the lives of those who I have been romantically engaged with. I have recognized that my life is the only one that I know that I have, and the same is true for anyone else. As a result, I am infinitely more motivated to be the positive change in the world that I wish to see, and more motivated to make the most of the time I have on earth. I am more willing to think for myself instead of second-guessing what I think based on what is written down in a holy book. These are not sentiments unique to me, they are common attitudes among atheists after leaving their faith, and it’s not difficult to find other reasons why leaving religion can be a positive and enriching experience.

Ultimately, though, believing things that are correct are things that we should all strive for. The truth makes us better people and make better decisions. At times as skeptics we seem to fetishize disagreement between individuals as if it’s necessarily a good thing, but we also have to recognize there can be an uncountable number of narratives and only one will be the truth. Healthy disagreement is a good sign that we are avoiding dogmatic behavior, but we have to recognize that the truth matters. All things being equal, if I were given the choice, I would much rather that my religious friends abandon their beliefs than not.

3. Atheist communities are still needed

This one requires the least amount of explanation, I think. While secularism is growing in America, and the “nones” population is rapidly climbing, anti-atheist stigma is still alive and well, especially in the American south. Whenever I have to make the case for the importance of atheist community, I recall one skype call through No Religion Required where I met a listener who literally had no friends outside of the atheist and secular community, and all her friends she knew in these communities were online.

It’s easy for me everyday being known as the atheist guy, especially since a majority of my time is spent among science researchers in the super-progressive college town of Boulder, Colorado. But all I have to do to disillusion myself from my bubble is drive an hour and a half south and end up in Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family and a few other large Christian organizations. I learn a lot from their residents of Colorado Springs when I go to the Denver Secular Hub (where residents from cities near Denver gather for atheism-related activities). It’s shocking how different our experiences can be, and it sheds a new light on things like the atheist billboard that was erected in Colorado Springs by American Atheists that had such controversy surrounding it. I’m reminded that a large amount of our activism is simply making sure that the most vulnerable atheists have a community available to help them feel welcomed and to give them a social support system to address their needs.

Knowing what I know now about inter-atheist conflict and the toxic nature of some of the people behind this drama, I wouldn’t be surprised at an outsider being disgusted at movement atheists as a whole. In fact, I wouldn’t blame someone for avoiding secular activism altogether simply to avoid the conflict altogether. But for me, it’s still vitally important to encourage the ending of religion. Religion is at the root of far too many problems for me to ignore it, and it intersects with far too many issues for it to be completely avoided with almost anything. For me, I’m far from giving up where I’m going to push my efforts.

That isn’t to say that any given person is obligated to be a secular activist. As far as my philosophy goes, we should be the positive change wherever we see fit, however small. It doesn’t matter if certain issues seem “too small” or appear to be a waste of time, if it’s a problem then it needs to be solved and somebody needs to do it. I’m happy to spread the message of humanism and the importance of a secular society, and I feel that it’s important to put pressure on people to get involved in movement atheism, but I’m happy when someone is involved in positive change in any way. I’m happy when Christians do good, when Jews do good, and when Muslims do good, and I’m happy to encourage them and work alongside them.

Ultimately, explicitly atheist activism is still needed. It could be cut-and-dry separation of church and state issues, or it could be intersectional where the focus is on something outside of mere “atheism”, such as race or gender issues. Both are important. To me, it’s not good enough to merely focus on simply separation of church and state issues or to make fun of what Ken Ham said this week or discuss logical fallacies for the bajillionth time. But if I’m going to be honest, those things are still vitally important. Separation of Church and State is important, critical thinking is important, and creating a space not only free of religion but actively defiant of religious culture is important. I am happy when I see all these things, and I’m happy that people still take up these tasks. It takes all types of work to resist.

Science is Intersectional. Our Activism Should Be, Too.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

The week after the world ended, but before I wrote five posts in a row about how the world is ending but how you can stop it, I attended a professional conference for my engineering field. Regular listeners of the podcast will know that I am a chemical engineering graduate student, and part of being a student is actually attending conferences. If your department can cover your expenses, it’s almost like a paid vacation. It’s like a paid vacation where you still have to watch forty PowerPoint presentations, but graduate students aren’t usually allowed to have fun anyway.

I was interested in seeing a lot of the things at this conference that some of the less social-justice minded atheists would have cringed at. There was a harassment policy that was far more comprehensive than Reason Rally 2016, yet the conference somehow

aiche-lgbt-photo

Image: A sign with details for an LGBT+ reception at my conference. There are also details for a disabled engineer convocation at the bottom.

lasted over a week without some kind of meltdown or without people getting unnecessarily upset about a woman not wanting to be approached alone in an elevator. There was a safe zone workshop for queer and trans engineers (see picture), yet there was no whining about having to respect trans people by having to undergo the odious task of using the correct goddamn pronouns. There were also social events celebrating LGBT+ and disabled engineers. I also thoroughly enjoyed the diversity at the event. Of the thirty-five talks I attended, over half were by people of color, and I’m pretty sure only a minority spoke English as a first language. At the same time, my peers and I were still able to learn lots of new things, present new ideas, go back and forth and rigorously discuss novel research techniques, and critically examine each others’ work. The days we weren’t presenting were filled with practicing our slides and worrying about what questions people would ask. Yes, this conference somehow managed to accommodate minorities and enforce policies that made everyone behave in a safe manner, but somehow we were able to engage in critical thinking at the same time for the progress of science. Somehow those two concepts aren’t in conflict!

There’s a couple of simple explanations for the difference between this and the atheist movement, of course. I have to be honest and can’t compare apples to oranges, and the disseminations of research findings within academia serve a vastly different purpose than rallying cries for a social movement. The speakers and attendees at this conference are often looking to network or learn new techniques, and these research results are borne of many late hours of tedious and difficult work or long nights tweaking sentences so that a paper will be accepted into a good journal. Speeches at an atheist conference, on the other hand, are filled with pathos, and are presented at a far more basic level, because we don’t have to have an academic specialization to campaign for Separation of Church And State. Even the most sophisticated of secular conventions are set up for friendly, personal connections, while a science meeting is almost entirely for professional purposes (even if grad students like myself take the opportunity to hit the bars around the city after getting out of our suits later). Besides this point, my professional organization has been around for over a century, and has had a longer time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I could make a long post about things that social justice detractors in atheist communities complain about, and why they aren’t really problems if you look outside the lens of secular activism. I don’t see a need for that for now, but I would like to focus on one aspect of scientific dissemination that highlights the importance of social justice focused activism within the secular movement. And that is the aspect of intersectionality.

As a refresher of the term, intersectionality in a social justice context is a term that focuses on how certain forms of oppression and ways the combat those forms of oppression are interrelated and often related to each other. For example, there are certain ways that black people are oppressed in America, and black Americans disproportionately feel the effects of this oppression. Due to cultural and religious differences between black and white Americans, however, black women or female-presenting people often experience oppression at an elevated level due to sexism. This sexism also ties into traditional gender roles, which oppress queer and trans people of all stripes. Many of the aforementioned problems tie into harm done with the hands of religion. In many ways, unraveling the problems with one form of oppression undoes the harms of other forms of oppression.

This has affected me on a practical level, and in fact, directly led to me becoming a secular activist. My best friend in high school was gay, and even though I was a Christian I always supported gay rights. It should come as a surprise to nobody that when I critically examined what prevented gay people from achieving equality in my country I found that religion was at the root of the problem. This led to a thorough re-examination of my beliefs, a deconversion, and a subsequent rebuilding of my values. Now I fight for the separation of church and state, as well as trying to eliminate religious ideology on a social level.

What does this have to do with my conference, though? To my knowledge, nobody tends to refer to anything outside the context of social studies as intersectional, and that’s fine. But there are a lot of aspects that parallel intersectional activism with how we go about communicating research findings.

For one thing, people outside of academia may not realize how incredibly specialized any given scientific field is. At my university, chemical engineering is only one of sixty-five programs in which someone can earn a degree. If I’m going to focus on something for my career, I have to pick a program that represents roughly 1.5% of available knowledge at my campus (and of course, not everything can be learned at a university, obviously). When I attended my conference and submitted and abstract for my presentation, I had to choose from one of thirty-five topics to present in. After choosing which topic to present in (Nanoscale Science and Engineering), there were thirty-five sessions at the conference that I could present in, ranging from topics like “self-assembly”, “nanomaterials manufacturing”, and “carbon nanomaterials”. Yes, there was a 2-hour session dedicated entirely to research about carbon nanotechnology. Hopefully this gives an idea of just how specialized this research can become. For a period of time at my conference, there was a specialized room of people within a particular topic within a particular focus within a broad research area within an academic field that focused intensely on a very specific topic.

It’s a useful strategy to focus on something very specific when trying to solve certain problems. A typical scientist will often pick an incredibly narrow research topic and focus on that for the rest of their lives. While it’s true that a given scientist may be a biologist or a physicist, they often become an expert in a very specific system. I’ve known professors who have labs that study one specific biochemical. Similarly, I’ve attended a one-day conference that focused entirely on the environmental breakdown of a single molecule. If you want to know a specific technique or process, it’s not uncommon to find maybe two or three groups that have a bunch of papers on it. If you want to have groundbreaking research, you’re not going to become one by being a jack-of-all-trades. You have to find a good niche that nobody else has explored, and explore what you can little-by-little. Your specialization will keep you at the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know, and it’s simply impractical to try and hold a specialty within more than a few specific areas.

It is for this reason that “identity politics” (or at least some non-strawman version of it) exists. We need people focusing on a very specific cause. While it’s a noble thing to be concerned about many things, we are limited beings with finite time, energy, and resources to carry out specific tasks. It’s also very difficult to mobilize large groups of people when interests become broader and broader. If you don’t believe me, try and hold a discussion on what specific actions humanists should focus on, and you will immediately start a shitstorm. This is the reason that advocacy groups exist for a certain purpose. There are humanist groups that specifically work to help the homeless, there are humanist groups that fight legal battles, and there are humanist groups that simply exist for community. The fruits of their labor are clear, tangible, and effective.

It’s for this reason that making the argument that “everyone should have equal treatment” doesn’t get us very far. It’s a valid sentiment, but not everyone has equal problems, and certain problems have not made as many progress as others. If you want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, then telling your conservative representative that doesn’t get you anywhere. To him, gay people always had equal marriage rights (since everyone has the equal freedom to marry someone of the opposite sex anyway). When advocating for LGBTQ rights, you need to engage on the specific needs of queer and trans people, lay out why they are marginalized, and why they should care. If those specific needs or grievances are not laid out specifically, than nobody outside of that group is even going to be aware that there is a problem in the first place. So yes, we need to engage with the needs of specific identities based on how they are perceived and treated.

What does that have to do with intersectionality? Haven’t I just made the case that we need to do our own thing and focus on our own very specific projects?

There’s a bit more nuance to the story. It’s true that on an individual level we may want to focus our attention on maybe one or two things at a time. In my lab, it’d be very difficult for any student to get anything done if they had more than a couple of projects they were working on. At the same time, while each researcher does their own thing, it’d be a mistake for someone to only interact within their own focus. A technique that helps one researcher may easily help another one, especially if they have similar work. One investigator may have a question about their focus that can be solved by another investigator’s technique.

Not to mention, there’s really no solid line that divides one discipline from another. I mentioned earlier that my program is one of sixty-five programs I could choose from. This is true, but what makes an area of study in my program (chemical engineering) different from another isn’t always clear. Lots of chemical engineers work with catalysis, which crosses over with chemistry and materials science. The same could be said of people in my program who study nanoelectronics, which are also studied by mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and physicists. I also have peers who work with cells, which cross over into work like genetics, molecular and cellular biology, and medicine. What helps me in one field could easily help someone else in another.

When I went to my conference, I saw a lot of talks that superficially didn’t have much to do with what I specifically study. I focus on the chemical kinetics and physical forces that cause DNA to hybridize and dissociate at a solid-liquid interface (or in layman terms,  how DNA sticks together on a surface). It’s a fairly unique project, and I didn’t see a lot of talks that did many similar things. But I saw a talk on nanoparticle coatings which may inform the way I design my experiments in the future. I saw a talk on data organization that could inform the way I perform analysis in the future. Their scientific techniques were different from mine and we studied different things, but we are both operating on the same fundamental physical laws and on the same scientific principles to figuring them out. Temperature still means the same thing if you’re trying to measure it on a star or a cell. A chemical reaction is still the rearrangement of molecular structure, and it doesn’t matter the reaction is being studied by a chemist or a biologist.

While I am far and away not an expert on intersectionality, this makes sense as a parallel in how I look at it. Many social justice causes are focused on fighting privilege and bigotry, and both are linked towards pushing people to recognize their implicit biases. Certain problems in one “area” of social justice affect another. I could make a causal web tying different forms of inequality to each other in a web detailing systems of oppression (though, as a non-expert, I’d rather someone else with more knowledge and better aesthetic taste do it, lest it turn out like a kindergarten macaroni project).

It’s okay to make a focus of activism, as long as you recognize that what you do will affect other peoples’ focuses. When atheists campaign merely for separation of church and state, they don’t just affect prayer in public schools or religious imagery in courtrooms. The justifications for “traditional marriage” stop holding up in legislation, and we stop treating queer and trans people as second-class citizens. We also stop allowing people to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” for denying healthcare for women and people assigned female at birth. We allow more death with dignity without unjustified supernatural belief get in the way. And when we shift the laws, this puts a little more pressure on the culture to become more accepting. When people complain about the secular movement engaging in too many things that aren’t related to atheism I am baffled, because the actions of movement atheists have never exclusively affected atheists.

As another quirky parallel to my conference, I also think of the utility of people having certain focuses. I attended a variety of sessions that week, and some of them had almost nothing to do with my research. My roommate had a presentation on hydrogen fuel cells, which is not very similar to my work which is focused on biophysics. I understood some of the various thermodynamic and chemical kinetic principles of the talk since they are fundamentals of my college major, but I missed a lot of the details. I didn’t understand enough to understand the context or the significance of the work during that session. Had I asked something about the catalytic property of platinum during the session, for example, I would have likely wasted everyone else’s time who already had learned that years ago. Afterwards, I was able to ask my roommate about the material properties of his fuel cells and how they worked. Everyone should be encouraged to ask questions, but keeping context in mind and waiting for the opportune time to ask it does nothing to curtail critical inquiry. In fact, it just makes it more efficient. Such is often the case when asking people of privilege to keep silent. When addressing the needs of the marginalized, we should pay attention and listen to the people of that group who need help. Given that many secularists routinely misunderstand or misconstrue basic concepts like privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions, etc., it’s difficult to imaging they would get the larger point when discussing higher-level concepts. The difference between me in that situation and some punk being asked to remain silent is that I was thoroughly aware of my ignorance on the subject, and acted appropriately.

For me, I’m happy to recognize that secularism doesn’t just affect me and other atheists. It affects everyone. A lot of my detractors fail to recognize this, and often paint social justice minded atheists as immature or uncritical. In fact, a lot

Fighting Against the Trump Presidency: Religious Freedom

While I tend to focus on general topics on this blog, I’m trying to post resources this week on how to focus your dollars, activism, and efforts on reducing the harm from this year’s election. This will be a multi-part series of short entries, focusing on a variety of causes that you can get involved in to mitigate some harm.


 

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

In his own terminology, Donald Trump would be an absolute disaster for Religious Freedom. His words seem to imply otherwise as he claims to champion religious freedom, but only superficially. He courted evangelicals by stating that he values religious freedom, and that he wants to do that by repealing the Johnson Amendment, which earned him 81% of evangelicals who voted.

However, this actually is a distortion of religious freedom. The Johnson Amendment actually maintains the First Amendment by holding all tax-exempt organizations to the same standard. We give tax breaks to nonprofits, while stating that they can’t utilize their special status for political purposes. If religious organizations are allowed to make political pronouncements, then this gives their speech special status.

In reality, Donald Trump only appears to selectively support certain religious beliefs, while completely opposing others. He has built a campaign on anti-Muslim bigotry and fear, and threatens to eradicate freedom of religion by marginalizing religious minorities.

He has proposed a ban from all Muslims entering the United States.

He has called for surveillance targeted at Mosques in America.

Trump has called for a database on refugees, and “did not rule out” a database or registry of Muslims. His position is unclear on whether or not he actually wants to target citizens based on belief.

He spread misinformation on the Orlando Shooter, as well as Syrian Refugees as an excuse for extreme vetting.

While he has specifically built his campaign platform on xenophobia targeted against Muslims, his proposals are threatening the religious freedoms of anyone who is not a Christian. He is transparently ignorant about Christianity, but he continues to pander to evangelicals. As with all candidates, his religious beliefs don’t matter, but his honesty absolutely does.

Secular Coalition For America gives him an F on secular values, threatening our secular constitution.

His pandering to evangelicals occurred at the Values Voter Summit, a conference of religious anti-LGBTQ and anti-women hate groups. Trump met with many of these leaders.

Trump has picked Betsy Devos as the Secretary of Education, who is a voucher advocate, which tends to lead to funding of religious schools.

Jerry Fallwell Jr., president of Liberty University, has also been considered by Trump to have a hand in the Department of Education.

Trump has stated that he will (somehow) make everyone say Merry Christmas again, which certainly is against the First Amendment.

Not to mention, Mike Pence would be bad at this as well. He opposes stem cell research, doesn’t accept evolution, and as I’ve covered is terrible on LGBTQ issues, all as a function of his theocratic tendencies.

All these threaten our secular constitutional republic, which is founded on religious freedom, such that us and our freedoms aren’t subject to the religious beliefs of others.

What can I do to help?

Again, I would suggest that you can support the ACLU, who will fight for your rights if you are discriminated based on religious identity.

You can also support and take action with the Anti-Defamation league, which will legally fight against religious bigotry, and also has actions you can participate in to combat this bigotry.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation will combat any overreach of religious action into government, including public schools. The American Humanist Association will also fight these legal battles, but also major human rights projects you can be involved with.

Also, take the time to meet people whose religious beliefs are not your own. If you feel like it, inform yourself on the religious practices and beliefs who are not your own, and not just the bad stuff. Be willing to challenge bigotry of this type if you see it.

Please feel free to share this piece with others who are concerned with relevant issues.

A Letter to Atheist Movement Denialists

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I’ve been on the fence about writing this, mostly because I think it’s wasted on the type of person who it’s addressed to. Movement denialists appear to be confined to online forums and comment sections, I have yet to hear a prominent blogger, broadcaster, or other type of thought leader express that there isn’t a movement. But then I realize that most people will read this are not the people that the title is addressing. It helps to be reminded that, yes, there are communities of atheists that are there to support each other.

And also, I just want something to link to so I don’t have to waste another fucking typed word on this.

With the rapidly rising percentage of “nones” in the United States, as well as the rising number of self-identified atheists, it’s become commonplace to reflect on the state of our movement and look how its performing. Recently, there has been a sizeable amount of infighting amongst atheists. Perhaps this has always been the case. It’s certainly not new, as Dawkins notably made his comment about mobilizing atheists like herding cats a decade ago in The God Delusion (2006). It may be the case that we simply have so many voices speaking out that the infighting is no longer brushed aside and now our warts and all have been brought to the forefront. Whatever the reason, we have been forced to confront a large amount of severe confrontations, and we’ve witnessed some ugly fallout as a result. As is natural for people who have assured each other that we value critical thinking and skepticism, it makes sense that we should look at ourselves and see how our movement is doing.

atheist-neckbeard

[Image: A standard image mocking atheist stereotypes, where an overweight atheist male sits at his computer. Surrounding him is typical atheist imagery, a My Little Pony, a fedora, a photo of Richard Dawkins, and a whiteboard tallying “internet arguments won”]

Without fail, once “the atheist movement” is addressed, then denialists will come out of the woodwork.

“Atheism isn’t a movement, it’s just a non-belief”

 

“Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m obligated to be in lock-step with every other atheist”

 

“I don’t believe in a god, but why does that mean I’m part of a movement?”

All of these claims fail to address the fucking point. Nobody claimed that “atheism” was necessarily a movement any more than being gay ropes someone into fighting for equal rights, but there is a “LGBTQ rights movement” nonetheless. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to say that being an atheist will necessitate that someone should fight for any given human rights cause, but when atheists mobilize as atheists to get others to help fight, they are often appealing more to common human decency rather than any sort of lack of faith. And when we ask you to join us in our cause, it is hardly an obligation. You have the freedom as an individual to take up or reject any cause that you would like.

Mostly, these outcries are addressing a strawman. No reasonable thought leaders are making any point that these statements purport to address. However, there is one claim that seems to have snuck around everywhere and is always ready to come out snarling. As that is the claim that there simply isn’t an atheist movement.

This claim is often bolstered with statements that the nation is simply filled with independently acting atheists. There is no atheist code or dogma, so why would we all have a reason to join together and work for a cause? We are freethinkers, therefore we shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks whether or not they are a believer. No, the people fighting for the eradication of religious privilege are simply working on their own behalf, with no collaboration, companionship, or community involved tied together by a shared nonbelief.

That is all fucking bullshit. It’s bullshit on stilts.

First of all, since when has any movement required total agreement? Since when has there been a movement for a cause that didn’t have its squabbles and disagreements on certain issues? I may be overstating here, there may very well have been a movement that doesn’t allow for dissent whatsoever. But if you are the person who is going to bring it to my attention, it will be news to me.

Perhaps these people have a bitter taste in their mouth when social justice causes are brought up, and are quick to fall in line with atheist YouTubers’ insistence that causes such as feminism are a cult. Perhaps the problem here is that they aren’t intimate with any movement, since if they were they’d realize that every movement is far more diverse, nuanced, and multifaceted than it appears at first glance. As a self-identified feminist (or supporter of feminism, as I am male), it would be a mistake to characterize it as a monolith, as my dear friends from Promoting Secular Feminism have taught me*. I’ve certainly disagreed with many feminists, and I support many feminists who will often disagree with each other on women and gender issues. There are self-identified Christian feminists such as Megan Fox who insists that her local library promotes porn. There are anti-porn feminists and pro-porn feminists. There are feminists who are trans exclusionary and sex work exclusionary (for some bizarre fucking reason). I can’t really make the case here, so if you are unconvinced maybe Wikipedia’s list of 18+ movements within feminism can make the case for you.

The point of the matter is, the existence of a movement does not even come close to implying that everyone must fall in line with the thoughts of everyone else. We can mobilize for similar causes, but do it for different reasons, in different ways, and through different avenues. But it hardly means we have to be beholden to each other’s opinions. The only thing I think you should be beholden to is morality and decency to your fellow man, which is not an appeal to your atheism, but your humanity.

Of course, regardless of all this, I have not gotten to the main point, which is that so many people claim that there simply is no movement. And that is absolutely nonsensical.

If there is no collective group of atheists fighting for social change, then why are so many secular conferences happening regularly? A cursory glance at the secular directory shows 28 state and regional atheist and secular conferences in 2016 alone.  And off the top of my head I’ve noticed that they’ve missed at least one. Conferences require a significant amount of involvement, travel and hotel costs, registration, time off from work, etc. And apparently a sizeable number of atheists are willing to put in their time and effort into attending these gatherings all over the nation, in order to hear prominent atheist voices and to engage in camaraderie with like-minded folks.

We have a significant number of conferences despite many annual conferences taking a year off to make room for the Reason Rally. Let’s talk about the Reason Rally. Naysayers will make the (highly motivated) claim that a bunch of skeptics were turned off from attending because there was a harassment policy as a result of SJW authoritarian control (despite it being a pretty standard policy you’d find at any gathering or conference of any sort). It’s true that there was a low attendance at the event this year. You can see the reasonable considerations for why it was low, including a complete board overhaul leaving a mess for the rally a mere six months before the rally was set to take place. But did you realize that during that weekend we got over 250 secular activists meeting with two thirds of congressional offices to speak about evidence-based policies (In SCA’s words, their “largest and most successful event ever”)? Do you realize we had two US politicians speaking alongside us that day speaking for secular values? Have you talked to anyone who attended the event about how enjoyable they thought it was, instead of just sitting at home and assuming it was some SJW fest where you have to flush yourself down the toilet if you misgender someone? Nevertheless, this was a significant atheist gathering, and it didn’t happen because a bunch of freethinkers independently decided to show up at the DC mall for the fuck of it. This was a movement behavior.

If there isn’t an atheist movement, then please explain why there’s such a ridiculous amount of explicitly atheist media that’s getting bigger every day. This media is not only springing up all over the place, but it’s largely collaborative, involving many discussions, debates, and dialogues between each other. There are three major blogging platforms that we have (count ‘em!), and the smallest has 21 blogs. We have a ridiculous amount of atheist podcasts, possibly too many. It’s difficult to quantify, but the a cursory look at iTunes’ religion>other category list gave me at least 46 explicitly atheist/agnostic/secular podcasts. And I know that it’s not even close to comprehensive, as I’m missing a few really big ones in that list (The Atheist Experience, The Thinking Atheist, The Gaytheist Manifesto, Dogma Debate, and The Imaginary Friends Show are in other categories). Check out some of our YouTube channels, or don’t, since I wouldn’t blame you. The list is, after all, missing my personal favorite atheist channel, Matt Dillahunty’s Atheist Debates.  And while we’re talking atheist media, check out our independent atheist book publisher!

If there isn’t an atheist movement, why are there so many mobilized organizations fighting for so many causes? Off the top of my head we have:

  • American Atheists
  • The American Humanist Association
  • Center for Inquiry
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation
  • Foundation Beyond Belief
  • Secular Student Alliance
  • Sunday Assembly
  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State
  • Camp Quest
  • Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers
  • Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

Not to mention, the hundreds of local and state groups that are merely there for atheists or otherwise nonreligious people to organize and meet up.

minnesota-atheists

Snarky caption: atheist sheeple mindlessly joining in groupthink. Snarkier caption: atheists actually doing productive shit. [Image: Minnesota Atheists protest for separation of church and state in a capital building. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

If this isn’t a movement, what is it?

I can answer that for you. It’s not a movement. It’s many movements. Like other social justice movements throughout history, there are many focuses of atheist, humanist, and secular activism. I’m echoing voices like Matt Dillahunty and Galen Broaddus, who have noted that there are many communities, groups, and organizations across the nation and the globe who are fighting against religious privilege from many perspectives and with many motives. There happens to be a lot of overlap within each distribution of perspectives, since these causes intersect so closely. There is no reason that any solitary atheist is beholden to any one of these causes. There’s no reason that an atheist can’t do their part by making dick jokes to ridicule religion one minute and aid secular-based humanitarian efforts the next. We can fight against religious privilege on philosophical, scientific, ethical, or social grounds, and we can fight on the basis of community, social need, or because it’s just damn fun.

All of these can be valid for many reasons. And it’s not my job or anyone else’s to tell you why you should care about how religion poisons us and our societies. Personally, I’d like to see us stop trying to focus on the overall movement, and instead we should work on issues at the grassroots level, focusing on local activism as well as specific focuses of our humanism that religion damages in particular (LGBTQ, gender, education, health, race, right-to-die, etc.). We are becoming too large to expect that we are all going to get along, and that’s a good problem to have. That, however, will be the focus of a separate post.

For now, I hope it’s apparent that the statement that there is no atheist movement is complete nonsense. There’s simply too much mobilization on such a large scale that we cannot take the claim that one doesn’t exist seriously. So please stop denying it.

Perhaps if you are making this claim, you are comfortable speaking out against religion within the confines of the four walls of your room, commenting on Reddit and YouTube. This is not a criticism, just a postulation. Perhaps you have a romantic idealized picture in your mind of how an atheist is supposed to act. Atheists act perfectly rationally, so they have no need to go out and organize with other atheists, as that’s merely what religious people do. Atheism doesn’t necessitate community, we are perfectly fine doing our own independent thinking, thankyouverymuch. All we need to do is win the discussions and the arguments against the religious, and once the majority of the country deconverts, our problems will evaporate away.

This, admittedly, is probably not what atheist movement denialists all think. It’s probably not even what most of them think. I don’t know what they think. They are welcome to make comments here to correct me (I won’t delete them until there are personal attacks or abuse involved). But the point is, it’s absurd to think that there isn’t a large joining together of prominent atheist voices joining hands to accomplish great things. The truth of the matter is, if we want to make the world better for atheists (and other identities affected by religion), a movement is how we get shit done. Atheists are gathering together and mobilizing, and we are causing change. We have protested our governments and met with our state leaders for evidence-based solutions. We have challenged childhood indoctrination in schools. We have won lawsuits challenging Christian hegemony in America. We have led to better inclusivity in society for queer and trans people. And we have done this not in spite of our lack of faith, but because of it.

The atheist movements we have are not synonymous with atheism itself. Atheism is merely a single conclusion. Once you don’t believe in gods, then what? You need more than nonbelief to affect change. There are many tools we have to do that. And one of the best tools we have is our capability of working with our fellow humans.

I close, then, with an invitation. Not a compulsion, but an invitation. There’s lots of work to be done. Will you join us?

 


*These women have taught me a lot on the history of feminism. Perhaps you’d be interested in their episode where they discussed the history of third-wave feminism. Or some of the historical context behind the branching of feminist movements due to disagreements on pornography. Or where they focused on non-western feminism. Or even the one where they criticized a feminism supporter for debating on behalf of feminism while treating it as a single movement with a single stance. Or maybe if you just want some information on safe sex practice, learn what type of lube you should use.

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